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Victoria Atkins: the new secretary of state for health and social care

Former barrister, Victoria Atkins has been appointed as the new secretary of state for health and social care, the fourth minister to take the position in two years.

Prime minister Rishi Sunak conducted a cabinet reshuffle this week and former barrister, Victoria Atkins has been appointed as the new secretary of state for health and social care, the fourth minister to take the position in two years.

Who is Victoria Atkins?

A former criminal barrister specialising in prosecuting serious organised crime, Victoria Atkins has been a member of Parliament for Louth & Horncastle since May 2015.

For the past year, she has worked as Financial Secretary to the Treasury following a longer role as Minister of State at the Ministry of Justice, where she lead work on prison operations and policy, youth justice, tackling violence against women and girls, and rape and serious sexual offences.

She resigned from this job in July 2022 citing concerns over “integrity, decency and respect” within the government, joining a growing number of ministerial resignations following the row over the Chris Pincher controversy.

Following a brief stint as Minister for Afghan Resettlement between September 2021 and 6 July 2022, she was the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Crime, Safeguarding and Vulnerability at the Home Office for four years. This role included work on domestic abuse, honour-based violence, sexual exploitation and FGM.

During her time as drugs minister in 2018, she was accused of “hypocrisy on a grand scale” over her husband’s involvement in a legal cannabis farm. Paul Kenward is managing director of British Sugar, licensed to grow non-psychoactive cannabis.

What issues will she have to address?

Top of the pile will be the NHS waiting list, which currently stands at a record 7.8 million. Staff retention is another huge issue, along with finding a resolution to ongoing industrial action.

Her appointment also comes at a time when health leaders say they are still ‘digesting, and working out how to respond to, last week’s deeply disappointing funding announcement’.

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said: “With its reshuffle, the government has an opportunity to revisit this decision in the imminent Autumn Statement, as well as more generally reset relationships with the health and care sector.

“While Rt Hon Steve Barclay MP has clearly been a divisive health and social care secretary, on behalf of our members we thank him for the progress he made to resolve the dispute with most trade unions that had facilitated strike activity and for the recent encouraging signs of progress in the talks with the BMA. It is vital that the NHS does not face further industrial action as this threat, both in terms of the financial hit and the growing waiting lists, continues to weigh heavily on the health service as winter approaches.”

The Royal College of Physicians welcomed the appointment and said there is no doubt of the severity of the challenges that are facing the health and care service. It highlighted that the The Long Term Workforce Plan announced earlier this year would be an important first step towards a sustainably resourced NHS and said it looked forward to working with the secretary of state in its implementation to deliver at least 60,000 more doctors by 2036/37 as planned.

President Dr Sarah Clarke added: “Reducing health inequalities and avoidable illness is key to reducing demand on our healthcare services. Ultimately, the best way to improve health is to focus on the factors that shape it – health and social care services can only try and cure illnesses created by the environments people live in.

“The government must maintain its commitment to publishing the Major Conditions Strategy and use it as an opportunity to set out bold action to address the wider determinants of health. The RCP and over 250 members of the Inequalities in Health Alliance (IHA) are calling for a cross-government strategy to reduce health inequalities. It is only with a joined-up strategy across government to tackle the factors that make us ill in the first place that we will be able to markedly make an impact on reducing the inequalities that are causing and worsening ill health in our population and reducing the trend of increased inactivity in the labour market due to long-term sickness.”

The British Medical Association, unsurprisingly, called for the new Secretary of State to find a fair way forward to restore doctors’ lost pay and value their unique expertise must continue unabated. It said long waiting lists and striking doctors have the same root causes – a catastrophic and chronic under-investment in our NHS.

Professor Philip Banfield, BMA Council Chair, added: “Time is almost up to get credible pay offers on the table; an opportunity to both end strikes and boost the recruitment and retention of doctors. This would not just get long-suffering patients the planned care they need, but give us some glimmer of hope, however slim, of getting through this winter more safely. It would be disastrous if the revolving door of health secretaries was responsible for the failure of talks and further strike action.

“Coming from the Treasury, Ms Atkins will hopefully now understand that the cost of continued inaction is greater than the additional investment needed to bring these disputes to an end. The benefits to patients and the economy of getting patients healthier and into work where appropriate are obvious.”

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